Andrew Heyward, CBS News President
Note: On February 17, 2000, Andrew Heyward came to Brown University for a conversation about the television industry. The president of CBS News since 1996, Heyward discussed changes in the media in recent years, the challenge of the Internet, the merger of CBS and Viacom, the popularity of millionaire quiz shows, and media coverage of Hillary Clinton. The following are excerpts from that discussion.
Q. Let's start with the big picture. Thirty years ago, network news was a dominant voice on the national scene. Since that time, we have seen a dramatic proliferation in viewing choices and because of that, the overall audience share of ABC, CBS, and NBC has dropped substantially. What happened and what do you think these changes mean for the average viewer?
A. A lot happened. I don't think it is an exaggeration to call it a revolution. The share for the traditional evening news broadcasts has declined dramatically. In fact, when I started out in the business in the early 70s, the combined share of the three news broadcasts was about 75, which means that three out of every four sets being used at that time were tuned to one of the evening news broadcasts. Now the combined share of the evening broadcasts -- Rather, Jennings, Brokaw -- is less than fifty percent, fewer than half. You can look at that in two ways. You can look at them as essentially the same program, which I think they are, there is no other program that has a 50 share so that's a pretty vigorous and sturdy genre. But there is no question there has been a dramatic decline. I think the reasons are that there are more choices. It used to be that you could if you wanted to see national and international news and you wanted to follow the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, or the Watergate scandal, you had to watch the evening news. There was just no other way to get that information other than newspapers. Now you can get information from cable news services. In response to the cable news services, we had to make our material available to our affiliates so that the local station has access to all of our video as we get it as opposed to what we used to do, which was to hold it back so you had to watch the evening news. So what was a comfortable oligopoly was shattered by people having other choices. That presented a big challenge for us. But I think there are other things to look at as well. There were changes in the country. I don't think we have the overwhelming news story out there that is going to galvanize public attention on the news. The civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, these were cataclysmic events. I went to college 1968 to 72. We were overshadowed by the war. Every year was disrupted by mass protests. We shut down many universities. If you were male, you had to worry about being drafted. There was a lottery and you had a number. If you had a low number, you might actually get drafted and confront that as soon as you lost your student deferment. These were huge issues. If you look at the big story now, there certainly are important things going on in America, but they are much vaguer and harder to identify. They are not as sexy. They are not as enblematic or iconic. They are harder to illustrate in a news broadcast. I think if you had to summarize the big story at the turn of the century, where we are now, you might say having fulfilled the promise of the American dream to an increasingly diverse population. That is important and it encompasses education and social policy and distribution of wealth and a lot of other issues, but obviously not as gripping as some of the other things we dealt. And frankly there has also been a decline of interest in news in the general population, particularly among young people. Believe it or not, in my day, it was quite common for college students to watch the evening news every night. That would be so unusual now....There is a decline in interest. I am not saying that in an accusatory way. Some of the responsibility is on us for failing to engage the new generation. But I also think that people's interests have diverged into other areas. You have an increasing fragmentation of the media into niches and what that might mean for society over the long run.
Q. You mentioned young people and the fact that they really are not watching the evening news very much and if we broaden it to newspapers, they are not reading newspapers at all. Why is that and how worried should we be about that?
A. It doesn't seem as important and there aren't such huge issues at stake. It is not demanded of you anymore. It is not something that your peers are going to judge you by. There was a time if you were ill-informed, you felt like an idiot. I don't think that is true anymore. It is a very prosperous time. People see education as career training as opposed to general background building. The notion of an educated, well-informed person has given way to the notion of budding specialists who are going to go off and make a living somewhere. It is ironic that this generation that I am part of, which was supposed to change America and shift your orientation away from pure materialism has ended up becoming the most consumerist generation ever and has ended up with the next generation being more so. But I also think that people will seek out information when it becomes important to them. It is not an accident that as people get older, they get more interested in the news. It is not just because they aren't going out to the club to go dancing. It is because they suddenly have a mortgage and they care about interest rates. They have a house. They have kids and they care about education. They think about moving into a neighborhood and they care about the crime rate. These are things you don't have to worry about right now, but will become part of your lives as you go along. You'll become more interested in the world around you because it will become important to you. I also think that as people get into their jobs, there is a premium on information. After all, we call this the Information Age. There is a premium on information in specialties. As you go out into the working world, you will find that you desperately need information in order to compete. So we have a website that we are part owners of called CBS MarketWatch. I gave a talk at Harvard before a group of highly motivated individuals in their mid-20s. There wasn't a single person who watched the Evening News. But everyone there was familiar with CBS MarketWatch because they could not only track their own portfolios, but follow the market. The Internet is going to produce an explosion of information and yet fewer and fewer people have an interest in and awareness of large issues.
Q. How is the Internet affecting the television networks? How are you responding, what do you see as the challenges, what are the opportunities?
A. The Internet is having a profound effect and I think it is not just the television networks, but on society as a whole. The long-term trend before the Internet came along was from a large, mass culture that people shared and was summarized by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Almost anybody, the next day at work, could talk about what Johnny Carson had said on his monologue. The networks dominated the news agenda in broadcast and you had certain programs that dominated the culture or the entertainment scene. All of that has started to fragment. If you look at a continuum where cable and the rise of specialty magazines in print have fragmented the audience, the Internet is just the latest iteration of that. What you are going to end up having, and it is a huge change, is mass media companies like mine trying to communicate with an audience of one. It is a phrase I heard a Nobel laureate who now works for a dot.com company use. It is an interesting phrase when you think of it. We are going into a world where you will be able to completely customize the news and information you get. On the one hand, you can say that is great. Why should I waste my time on information that is not of interest to me? That's a valid point of view. But the other side of it is how can you have a citizenry making informed decisions on issues of common interest or issues that affect the common interest if they are not dealing with a common information base, which increasingly they won't be. So you will see only the stories that are of interest to you. That is a wonderful use of technology and information. It is a great ultimate extension of where we are headed now. But we lose something in a democracy where a citizenry is expected to make common decisions based on their perceptions of what the general welfare is. That really is going to be a profound change. For us journalists, we have to compete on the Internet and all the major news outlets are aggressively pursuing Internet strategies. But at the same time, we have to recognize that we increasingly are not going to be as important as we were back in the earlier era. Rather than sit back and wait for the wave of history to wash over us, we are trying to adapt to a society where we have to be able to provide news on demand to an audience of one. Ironically, and the good news for us, is that the Internet offers such a huge, almost overwhelming set of choices that familiar brands like CBS or ABC or NBC become very valuable. It is the paradox of fragmentation. As the audiences get more split up, the company that still can aggregate large numbers of people because of their familiarity become even more valuable. So one of the reasons why you see this rise in media stocks, even when you have fragmentation, is we can still aggregate large audiences over many platforms. So it is way too early to say the network news divisions are dead, but they are facing huge challenges. What used to be their signature products, the Evening News, while still retaining huge symbolic importance and still retaining a large audience with a 50 percent share, is now giving away to prime-time news magazines, to websites, and to other specialized products to try and find people where they actually consuming news and information.
Q. Now if I can push you on this point, you are talking about the fragmentation of the marketplace, essentially what I argue in my media class is we have moved from a broadcasting era to an era of narrowcasting. Niche marketing is in, everyone is trying to identify that segment that will be loyal to them. Now I worry what this is going to mean for our society. If you go back 30 years, at any given point in time, people were watching ABC, CBS, and NBC, and getting more or less the same version of reality. In that situation, culture defined as a shared sense of what was going on was very important. What I wonder now is whether America risks what I call "electronic Balkanization." We are now defining ourselves into these tiny little niches. We don't have the same sense of shared understanding. When you look at the O.J. case, blacks and whites had very different version of reality. The gender gap is a big part of our society today. Are we facing a serious problem today from narrowcasting, niche marketing, and this fragmentation of the audience?
A. I agree with everything you just said. I don't know yet if it is a serious problem. It certainly is a profound and influential phenomenon. It depends on what you consider a problem. There certainly is going to be electronic balkanization and maybe the answer is that our society is going to become a pluralistic place, where many voices co-exist, joined by a good economy. You do see this kind of a trend with the horrible problem of race relations. You are seeing rather than the idealistic 60s, people are looking for civil rights but the ability to live separately because they prefer it in many ways. There is a backlash against that notion of the mosaic. I think we are going to have a society that is run by a tiny elite of people who bother to get information. If you care about who the president is, you can still have influence and paradoxically, more and more influence as fewer and fewer people get involved. I think you are going to have a majority of Americans in the future who don't really bother to get involved in politics as much as following it, who don't bother to vote. Voter turnout is alarmingly in decline. This balkanized world is going to contribute to that because there isn't going to be a common base of information and culture to deal with. It is not quite clear what we all are going to have in common. And that is a huge change. Post-war America, there was this notion of an America. The G.I. bill gave people money for education. They went to buy houses and there was a shared American dream. I think that now that doesn't exist. I don't know if that is good or bad, but it is hugely different.
Q. Now the flip side of balkanization is the media merger phenonenon. Last Fall, one of the big announcements was CBS and Viacom merging. First of all, how do you expect that merger to affect CBS News and second, is bigger better in the media business. Should we fear these big media conglomerates holding too much power in American life?
A. I can see why with these mergers that people might be alarmed about them. But I'm not and I'm not just being a good corporate citizen. The ability to aggregate audiences from many different places is going to be very important for the economy. It is the only way to support the production value that we have become accustomed to. A program like 60 Minutes or 60 Minutes II takes a lot of money to produce. That won't exist if that becomes an Internet program. There is no financial model yet for the Internet and there won't be for the foreseeable future which can support a program like 60 Minutes. And 60 Minutes has played a valuable role in American television. As audiences fragment, the ability to pull together different audiences to make a viable business is going to be important for the survival of traditional media, which I think still plays an important role in people's lives as news and entertainment. What you shouldn't worry about, at least for the foreseeable future, is a commonly held belief, a myth, is that these companies directly influence the news and they tell us what to cover and not to cover. There is still a Chinese wall between the editorial content and the advertising. The people I work for are tough, hard-nosed business people, the toughest people I ever have worked for, and I have been around for a very long time. But they have never called me about a story, saying do this or don't do that, how could you do that? A lot of things we do at CBS News piss off sponsors and they call the head of the whole company. He never calls me about it. I just know it indirectly. I don't think we have to worry that the news is going to be corrupted. To me, the insidious influence on news is commercialization, but not direct influence by sponsors or companies. The commercialization, meaning the need to maximize profits. The huge change in the news since the heyday is that now we have to make money. When news started out, it was a virginity restorer. It was designed to be the respectable thing that the networks did because they were also inflicting Green Acres and Petticoat Junction on the American public. Now, starting in the 80s, all three television networks were taken over by other companies, either actually in the case of NBC which was bought by GE, or ABC which was bought by Cap Cities and later by Disney, or in our case, virtually by the Loew's Corporation, suddenly the network news divisions had to make money. Covering news is not inherently profitable. When you are running the London bureau, you have to be ready to cover news all over the world. That is not inherently a profit-making venture. It didn't matter in the 70s. But starting in the 80s, it mattered a lot. More and more of our resources go into the news magazines, which make a lot of money and resources have shrunk away from news coverage. As we go to this fragmentation, it is going to be harder and harder to justify resources to cover news and do original news reporting around the world. So I think the real threat to us is not the mergers. Ironically, the merger may help us because CBS News will be less of a problem child than it is now. There is MTV News, but there is no other real news division that does what we do inside the Viacom company. So we are going to be relatively unaffected, compared to some other divisions. But in a funny way, we are profitable, as are the other networks. There will be less pressure to be obscenely profitable because there are so many other parts of the company that are. Ironically, the merger may look like a sinister, Big Brother kind of thing, is actually going to make us more viable economically that we were.
Q. One of the interesting things that is happening now in television is the rise of so-called reality television. People are letting cameras into their lives on a 24-hour basis and then have that broadcast. We also are seeing these millionaire quiz shows that are attracting enormous audiences. What is going on with this stuff and what does the success of some of these shows tell us about ourselves?
A. That is a very rich question. There is a fascination with voyeurism. Television has two great strengths: immediacy and emotional impact. Being able to peek into someone else's life is fun. It is a natural human instinct to peer into the neighbor's yard. It is pretty harmless when you are in your own living room and the neighbor can't peer back. One of the reasons why TV news magazines are successful is that they deal with reality. They have not only intellectual impact but emotional impact as you see people coping with difficult circumstances. I also think that one reason why TV news magazines and these shows are successful is one that may not immediately spring to mind. And that is the most profound technological invention of our time, which is the remote control. That has had an enormous impact on television, on entertainment, and on the attention span of the people who go to Brown University. It is profoundly influential if you think about it. Think about what would happen if every time you talked to somebody, he or she were holding a device that would allow that person the second you got boring to click away and never come back. Television programming is devised to hook you and hold you, not only during the commercial but after the commercial to come back. It means there is so much emphasis on the narrative hooks, on the teases, and keeping you engaged. The fear is that the second it gets hard to understand or anyway challenging or off-putting, you'll go away and never come back. If you look at how television news programs are produced from that perspective, you will see the profound influence. It also means that a program like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is perfect for the surfer. You land there and you can watch it in tiny chunks. You can watch the whole thing or you can watch a little bit of it. You can watch it one night, but not the next. It is terrific for an age of limited attention span and it is big and visual. It has nice music stings to it. It is just great eye, ear, and mind candy for someone who is looking around for a quick fix. You have voyeurism, you have bite-sized chunks that are great for the era of the remote control. You have everybody's desire to get rich quick. It is very well done. It is engagingly done....
Q. Let me ask you about another public figure, Hillary Clinton. Looking over the course of the last 8 years. There have been many ups and downs in the life of Hillary Clinton and many ups and downs in terms of media coverage of Mrs. Clinton. Do you think television has been fair to her?
A. I do. I think most of her wounds are self-inflicted. I have seen her quite a few times in public settings and have had the pleasure of meeting her a number of times. She is a very charismatic and very smart person. She is a fabulous speaker. But television isn't there to convey those moments. One of the things about television news is it doesn't cover the status quo very well. It covers change and crisis and things that are unusual. So people don't understand why we don't do more on education. Education is vitally important, but there isn't a lot of dramatic change going on for the most part. In the case of Hillary Clinton, she arguably has been given as much overly-generous treatment as she has been given overly-critical treatment. I think the sense that people have of her is pretty accurate based on knowing her alittle bit. Is it your perception that the media have been unfair?
Q. Yes. There are some ways in which there has been excessive attention to wardrobe and hairstyle changes.
A. But here is somebody who puts on a Yankees cap and claims she has been a Yankees fan all her life. She has been interested in manipulating public opinion with cosmetics as the media might be about showing her with a hair band or not.
Q. But it is such a classic thing both for female candidates and female public officials that certain things get highlighted and sometimes it is more difficult for them to get taken seriously.
A. I think that is generally true in society. There still is a double standard when it comes to looks....There is a much narrower standard that women have to adhere to in television news. It is profoundly unfair. There are a few exceptions of women who have been allowed to get a little bit older gracefully in television news. But if you look and travel around the country and look at local news, there is an avuncular, pot-bellied, balding guy with a gorgeous knock-out. Who knows if they are equally qualified as journalists. In some cases, the woman might be much stronger. That is very unfair. I just think the Hillary Clinton case, I don't think she has been a victim of the bimbo factor. She has always been acknowledged as very bright. If anything, her power behind the throne has been magnified in people's minds and she is seen as a Rasputin-like character who actually is making things happen. I think she has been given a pretty fair shake as a policy-maker and as an intellectual person.